Reprinted from Energywire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2019. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net. For the original story and more news click here.
An Australian minerals company says it's close to perfecting processes for tapping a huge new source of electric vehicle battery materials — recovering critical metals and minerals from conventional mining waste and spent batteries.
Lithium Australia NL says its proprietary processes will allow it to economically extract lithium and other raw materials from the mine tailing waste disposed of by Australia's huge mining sector. Executives there say their breakthrough also brings them one step closer to large-scale electric vehicle battery recycling, thus "closing the loop on the energy metal cycle."
The technology development comes as analysts fear the industry will be hit with skyrocketing commodities prices as surging EV battery manufacturing results in shortages of critical materials. EV battery unit prices are seen falling further, improving their mainstream commercial appeal over time.
An industry outlook produced by PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, warns that rapidly expanding EV production could lead to constraints in supplies of lithium, cobalt, nickel and possibly manganese. Prices for cobalt and lithium have already risen sharply as a result of rising demand from the EV industry, analysts there pointed out.
The Lithium Australia NL method, called SiLeach, allows the company to convert mine waste into lithium. Another step produces cathode materials that can be used in the manufacture of electric vehicles.
The process can be reversed, too, the company said. The next step is collecting used EV batteries and recovering their lithium content, to be then recycled for use in new battery packs.
Lithium Australia Chief Financial Officer Barry Woodhouse said in an interview that the potential doesn't end with lithium.
"We'll be extracting lithium, cobalt, nickel and whatever else is sitting in those batteries," he said.
Australia's Department of Industry, Innovation and Science has been tracking the nation's surging lithium sector as EV manufacturing in Asia expands. Australian mines supply the raw ore for lithium extraction, and exports have surged, with the nation's total export value of the ore expanding by a factor of six.
The department expects Australia's lithium dealers to hit over $1 billion in sales per year by the end of the decade should the global EV market continue growing.
But Woodhouse said it's time for his industry to embrace high-tech solutions to a looming EV materials supply shortage.
"We can no longer be the mine site of the world," he said. "We need to actually add value, and this is a great opportunity because Australia has most of the minerals that go into the construction of batteries."
The company also owns an old tin mine in Germany where it's working to supply materials for Europe's EV industry.